Rated R - Running Time: 1:42 - Released 9/25/03

From out of Montreal comes Sunchaser Pictures, a quiet little production company that may be destined to make a big splash in the near future, if its first feature, Expiration, is any indication. Written, directed, edited, and starred in by 23-year-old Gavin Heffernan, and populated mostly by college students and various non-professional actors, Expiration is an impressive debut for this young group of friends who, operating on the most meager of shoestring budgets, are mostly donating their time, doubling and tripling up on duties in front of and behind the camera between term papers and final exams. While its production values and general sense of style are somewhat lacking (it was shot on digital video and apparently edited on Heffernan’s own PC), its clever timeline, conversational writing style, and occasional moments of cinematic genius serve to counteract the technical flaws. The film exudes raw talent on both sides of the lens and serves as an unwitting document of the kind of purity of vision embodied by artists at the beginnings of their careers, before fame and fortune have begun to affect their judgment or their creative output.

The film takes place over the course of one night in Montreal, a night which proves to be especially fateful for its three main characters. First we have Sam (Heffernan), a twenty-something college grad and valedictorian of his class who, while desirous of realizing his potential, also maintains the good fight to be a nice guy. After discovering that his female best friend and one-time sex partner Niki (Erin Simkin) is pregnant, he decides the right thing to do is propose to her, although they don’t exactly click as a couple. After a semi-romantic dinner out (during which he fails to come to the point), he stops by a convenience store and is one of several victims of an armed robbery. Another such victim is a smart, attractive, but jaded girl named Rachel (Janet Lane), whose life once had promise but has taken an unfortunate turn, resulting in her employment as a drug runner for a dealer who found her on her worst day and exploited the situation. Rachel had stopped in the store on her way to deliver a large parcel of heroin to an eccentric but high-paying customer, and, of course, her package and Sam’s engagement ring are among the items stolen. Realizing that the absence of those items could seriously affect their lives from this day forward, Sam and Rachel decide they must work together to track down the crook and get their stuff back.

Meanwhile Niki, who had fallen asleep in Sam’s car, wakes to find him missing and his note blown away. Thinking she has been ditched, she tries to find her way home through dangerous neighborhoods with her makeup smeared, her clothes mussed, and her mouth tasting like red wine and morning sickness. Finally she is noticed by a middle-aged prostitute (Denise Depass) who offers to drive her home but ends up leading her in yet another unexpected direction. And as all our co-protagonists make their way through their respective paths, they encounter a multitude of characters and situations, some pathetic, some scary, some mildly humorous, and some bordering on the absurd, all leading them toward dawn, toward destiny, and toward some major decisions about their lives.

This is the kind of movie which would probably take several viewings to fully understand, but that’s just the kind I like. With its alternately gritty and breathtaking cinema (by Sebastian Grobys and Ben Dally) and its dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness construction, all to the strains of the distinctively understated original score by John Day, it reminds me of David Lynch’s 2001 puzzler Mulholland Drive, which is one of my favorite movies to date. The acting is somewhat inconsistent—the leading players are adequate (Lane, who also served as the film’s art director, is especially effective, and Heffernan’s own fish-out-of-water performance is reminiscent of Topher Grace in Traffic; almost too straight to be so comfortable in this situation), but some of the supporting cast members’ work betrays an immaturity of style. Moreover, Heffernan’s direction seems occasionally to undermine his own subtly powerful screenplay—there are scenes where more emotion could be used to make characters seem more real, more viscerally affected by the cruel events acting on their lives. Yes, these are people who have become used to strain, but our reaction in a way depends on theirs; seeing someone reach the breaking point can trigger a similar response in the viewer. One gets the sense that being a rookie on a tight budget and with a low expense account, Heffernan was reticent to ask too much from his cast members. The result is a potentially affecting concept with a sometimes sterile execution.

But despite the budget- and inexperience-related flaws of this production, it still remains leagues better than 90% of what is churned out by Hollywood by respected professionals and makes millions every weekend at the box office. It is heartening to see such integrity, and such an ability to exploit it, present in the next generation of filmmakers. But young artists with integrity are a dime a dozen; the trick, of course, is to remain true to that integrity after the big bucks and big offers start flooding in. Heffernan and company may well have that challenge to deal with in the next few years; I wish them good luck in keeping the dream, the art, and the idealism alive. ****

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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